(I’ve written these words to provide some material for a meeting with senior managers and creators here at the BBC on Friday).
There’s a vast social and economic experiment – centred on the Internet – that’s been going on for ten or fifteen years: it’s called ‘open source‘. The evidence is accummulating that the open source approach to creation of all kinds is very productive of what the BBC would call ‘public value’. Here are five example of open source in action in places far removed from its origins in software.
Last month Trent Reznor’s outfit released onto the net over 400GB of raw HD video shot on several dates during the band’s most recent tour. All footage shot from multiple camera angles plus separated sound were provided with no restriction as to use. Everything necessary to produce a commercial-quality tour DVD was provided. What was fascinating about the stunt was that wannabe remixers had to be really serious about the project: even downloading 400GB of video is a big deal, let alone organising it and cutting it to a professional standard. This sheer scale of the enterprise favoured organised teams with a mix of skills and lots of ambition. The experiment produced a small number of highly-organised projects and not a free-for-all of trashy mashups.
Open source originated in software development where there’s a clear separation between the source code and the shipped application but wherever it’s possible to separate the ‘recipe’ from the ‘finished product’ the idea works well. This beer recipe is published under an open source licence. Anyone is free to use it to make beer, provided they attribute the final brew to its ‘author’: the brewing company that published the recipe.
When the BBC Creative Archive crashed and burned its specially designed Creative Archive Licence survived and is now in use by, among others, the British Library, The Open University and Teachers TV. Everything aired on Teachers TV is available for free download at the channel’s web site. I’m a school governor and at several governor training courses I’ve watched videos made by Teachers TV. A generous, unrestricted licence is spreading TTV content widely and producing a huge amount of ‘public value’ (like better-trained school governors), amplifying the content’s underlying value substantially.
Artists of a certain age just don’t understand why they shouldn’t put their music up at one of the big music hubs for free use. Many are going further and encouraging fans to download and remix audio. There are thousands of explicitly open source bands on MySpace and YouTube already but even artists with no interest in open source as an idea are giving their music away to promote tours and to generate interest from labels. It’s pretty clear that many of these artists are embarking on long and happy careers during which they will never sell a single recording.
Progress in science happens largely in secret. Experiments are planned and executed in closed laboratories. Results remain secret until publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Many important results are never published because they fail the peer-review test. Precious laboratory resources are wasted in duplicated effort and millions are invested in journal subscriptions that could be spent on primary research. Scientists like Jean-Claude Bradley , a chemist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, are impatient with the closed regime and many have opened their laboratory notebooks: publishing them on the web where they can be read and annotated by other practitioners throughout the research and publication cycle. The result is faster progress, better research and less waste. The impact on science will be immeasurable.
Picture by Tom Scott.